How to Plan a Trip to India: An Overview

Of course you don’t expect to see an elephant or a snake charmer or naked sadhu as you land in one of the major cities in India. You have stopped believing in these colonial projections of India.

You won’t have to sit on the roof of a train while you traverse the country nor will you have dysentery the day after you arrive. You don’t have to eat rice and spicy food but enjoy a cuisine suited to your needs.

The Taj Mahal isn’t the only tourist attraction. To me, it’s a sorrowful reminder of a king overthrown by his son and relegated to a cell until his death.

English is widely used across India. Because there are 22 official languages and hundreds of dialects, even an Indian would face a language barrier in a remote village. When we say, “Your good name,” we aren’t implying you have a bad name too. We simply want to know whether your name is Sherry or Shannon or Dan.

You should know that the Australian, Canadian, or U.S. Dollar, Dinar, Euro, Yen, etc., will buy more than you are used to.

If you already feel a bit intrigued about planning a visit to India, wait, there’s more! This Pxley story isn’t the stereotyped take on a visit to India. When you finish reading this story, you will know why.

Note: I don’t receive kickbacks from any of the businesses mentioned in this story.

What To Expect

You will need a visa for India. It will provide you access to most parts of the country but the state of Arunachal Pradesh and certain regions of Sikkim require a Protected Area Permit.

A 2-week stay is ideal to cover a region in depth. Similarly, a 2-week stay will allow you to visit the major cities and a few locations near the cities you visit. While helping a friend plan for a visit to India, he said he would prefer to experience the country rather than just see things. I believe that is an excellent way to plan, but plan according to what you wish to do, see, and explore. India is amazingly diverse!

Try something different when it comes to food. There are no specifics that can be called “Indian food.” Curry isn’t a dish; blame the British if you thought it was. Each state has its own cuisine. A good way to introduce yourself to an Indian meal is a thali, a meal served on a platter with different dishes. Depending on where you are, you can try a Maharashtrian thali, Punjabi thali, North or South Indian thali, etc. Drink bottled water and unseal the cap yourself at a restaurant. Skip the ice. Refills for a tumbler of Coke or Pepsi are not free.

Familiarize yourself with the Metric system. Indians don’t talk about the weather, but it will come in handy with regard to planning your days. Indians write dates in the DD/MM/YYYY format.

As Indians, we somehow don’t seem to always follow directional signs. For example, we don’t stand in one line while boarding a flight and create a new branch according to our convenience. If you happen to take a city bus in Mumbai, everyone stands in line! Another example is a monastery with a “Silence Please” sign and a parent screaming across the hall to tell the kids not to climb a chair. We litter but are getting better at following this civic sense.

If you happen to be white skinned, people may stare at you. Don’t be alarmed because we don’t see the likes of you in our everyday lives.

Privacy is a luxury in India. It isn’t uncommon for Indians to ask personal questions—are you married, where do you work, how much do you earn, what car do you drive, etc. Another contrasting feature is that most U.S. homes won’t have a fence yet you may not know your neighbors whereas most homes in India have a fence or wall and we know almost everything about our neighbors! I don’t mean to imply one is right, and the other is wrong. These are cultural differences. However, irrespective of what the Guardian, New York Times or Washington Post sell to you as sensational front page coverage, a funeral pyre for Indians is a sad, solemn, private moment not to be shared with a general public.

How To Get There

If you are coming from the U.S., there are a few direct flights to India and several with layovers in Europe. I prefer a layover because a) I don’t like a 14- to 16-hour non-stop flight, b) a 4-5 hour layover allows me to shower, get a bite to eat, do a bit of Duty Free shopping, and get set for the second leg of the journey.

Depending on what you wish to cover in India, plan on your arrival city—Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai. For example, if you plan to visit Bengaluru and a nearby state, Bengaluru is the obvious destination. Delhi should be your destination if you plan to visit Jaipur, Udaipur, Leh, and others.

Immigration and Customs will take an hour to clear. It is easy to find your way to a baggage carousel since signs are in English. Baggage carts are free; yay India!

If you have made a reservation with a major hotel chain, they can arrange for a pick up at the airport. If the hotel does not provide an airport pickup, ask about a reliable taxi service. Prepaid taxis are available at airports. Be aware of several individuals that will approach you to exchange currency or provide a prepaid taxi service. It is best to avoid such offers. Follow the signs for prepaid taxis or approach a policeman for assistance. There are no extra charges for a prepaid taxi, but you can give a tip of Rs.50 to the driver for handling your baggage. Don't let anyone else handle your baggage at the airport. I would not recommend taking the airport shuttle because its stops are limited.

When you do get to India, try to get an Ayurvedic massage at a reputed spa on the day you arrive. It will help you in several ways—relax, refresh, and rejuvenate.

When To Visit

I recommend the winter months of December to February to visit India. This is also a high season for tourists. Expect crowds.

I have recommended friends to visit during the summer months of June and July because the weather is pleasant in Bengaluru. Furthermore, if you happen to be in a hill town like Munnar in Kerala, you will need a sweater or jacket. If you are in the mountains of Sikkim and Ladakh, the weather will be pleasant to cool during the summer months and cold to freezing during the winter months.

In general, the summer months are hot and humid, or much drier. Air conditioning is not common. In winter, bring warm clothes because central heating is unheard of in India. Weather varies depending on which part of the country you visit. Plan ahead by reviewing online resources because in January you can ski in Gulmarg while others scuba dive in The Andamans.

What To Pack

Pack lightly. Pack comfortable clothes. Pack a sweatshirt or light sweater.

You can wear shorts and tees during your travels in India but I recommend light khakis or travel pants for comfort. Sleeveless tops and capri pants for women are fine but you might need to cover your arms if you happen to visit a place of worship. Pack a couple of jeans, polos, and shirts. Bring a hat or cap as protection from the sun. A universal adapter is necessary.

Good walking shoes are recommended. Mind your step wherever you go.

Carry some Indian Rupees, if possible. Higher denomination foreign currency is good for local currency exchanges at a bank. Credit cards are accepted at major hotels, airlines, malls, restaurants, and medium to large department stores. Google Pay is a good digital payment option.

How To Travel

I recommend air travel. Book before you leave for India. Air travel will save you time. Some of the airlines you can use for your travels within India are Air India, IndiGo, SpiceJet, and others.

Some hotels provide their own taxi service. There is safety in this option. A sample cost estimate for a taxi can be 150 USD for 7 hours and not exceeding 50 miles. Ola and Uber provide rideshares. Remember to download their apps.

Expect heavy traffic and crowds in the cities and tourist attractions. As Indians, our definition of personal space is different or nonexistent. You are visiting a country of over a billion people.

There are no rest areas along the state or national highways of India. This is a challenge.

Although train travel is a fascinating way to see India, I have not recommended train travel to my friends. Train services are improving, but it doesn’t compare to its counterparts in Japan or Europe. If you wish to splurge, you can try the following guided train journeys that cover specific itineraries: Deccan Odyssey, Golden Chariot, Maharaja’s Express, Palace on Wheels, or Royal Orient Train. A 4-8 day journey can cost approximately 3,500-10,000 USD. Visit their websites for detailed and current information.

I would not recommend driving in India. Navigating traffic is challenging because we don’t understand personal or vehicular space. Did you say “what about traffic rules?” I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Indians don’t give directions in north and south or east or west. Instead, we ask you to look for a tree, make a right at that landmark, go straight [on a winding road], and then ask the fellow at the store with a big signboard how to reach your destination. Warned you.

Where To Stay

There is a wide range of accommodations available in the major cities—from luxury to budget.

Select a major hotel chain—ITC, Leela, Lemon Tree, Oberoi, Residency, Taj, etc. No matter where you plan to stay in the city, there will always be travel involved—to and from the major attractions. Make your hotel reservations before you leave for India.

Major hotel chains have modern amenities and you won’t have to squat to go potty. Toilet paper quality may vary from what you are used to back home—comfortable, soft, triple ply, sustainable, with a touch of lavender.

What To See

There is so much to see in India and you can’t expect to cover all the sites during your visit. Therefore, plan ahead for your experience or what you wish to see.

Read a few Pxley stories. They will provide you with a sample of travel experiences in India.

I highly recommend exploring temple architecture in southern India. The intricate stone carvings are mind-boggling. When in southern India, we wobble our heads to the left and right when we understand what you said. It’s not a neck exercise.

Visit a local market. It is one of the best ways to get a feel for India.

If you plan to visit Leh in Ladakh, you will need to spend a day or two acclimating yourself to the high altitude. Leh is popular for tourists during the summer months. You will need to book your flights before you leave for India. If you plan to visit a monastery in Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh, check online for festivals that are held at a monastery.

Beach resorts in India aren’t like the ones in Cancun in Mexico or Benidorm in Spain. There are five star beach resorts in Goa and Kerala. I prefer a smaller beach resort that offers a traditional hut with modern amenities, small private pool, and food.

Contrary to what Bollywood may project in their films, young Indians aren’t running around trees singing and courting. We swipe left too.

Poverty is visible. You cannot save a kid on the street by giving her/him money. If you feel obliged, donate to a reputable charitable institution.

What and Where To Buy

I recommend khadi, cotton, and silk textiles. When you buy handloom products in India, you celebrate our heritage and culture. Explore traditional designs on cotton and silk fabric.

Handicrafts of wood and brass can be good gifts for your family and friends. Traditional art on canvas or silk is a gift to yourself, if you wish to add to your collection. Gold jewelry is an option.

Visit a State Emporium store for your handloom purchases. For example, visit the Cauvery Handicrafts Emporium in Bengaluru or Lepakshi in Hyderabad or Utkalika in Bhubaneswar. If you happen to be in Assam, I recommend buying Assam Tea for yourself or your friends.

I highly recommend looking into stores that sell goods from the tribal regions of India.

In case you forgot to buy a gift for someone, the major airports have handicrafts stores where you can pick up a last-minute gift.

A Few Things to Remember

  1. Be aware of your surroundings.
  2. Pay attention to your purse and wallet.
  3. In certain cities, someone is always trying to sell you something. Avoid starting a conversation with them.
  4. Learn to bargain.
  5. Vehicular traffic doesn’t stop for foot traffic. You’re not in Kansas anymore.

I tell prospective visitors to India that the country can be challenging for a tourist but less so for a traveler.

There are stark differences in earnings and livelihood, which make cities a contrasting reality of rich and poor. Old traditions and customs exist within an ever-evolving society. Pollution and poverty can hit you hard. In spite of it all, we are quite content and thankful for what we have, even though we might appear to be an unhappy lot. We just don’t show our emotions. You will return with a different outlook on India, Indians, and your life in general.

As Sarojini Naidu, an Indian activist and poet, impressed upon us in To India:

“Thy Future calls thee with a manifold sound
To crescent honours, splendours, victories vast;
Waken, O slumbering Mother and be crowned,
Who once wert empress of the sovereign Past.”

We don’t need a Hollywood hero to save one child from a slum in Mumbai or from a brothel in Kolkata. We ignore media outlets that haven’t gotten over their colonial and Oriental outlook. We are flummoxed by a group of elitist and classist liberals in India that aren’t open to a different point of view. What we need is for you to look at India through your educated eyes.

Come soon! We need to ask you a few personal questions. As we say in India, ”God promise, we won’t eat your brain.” Meaning, we won’t bother you. Come, okay?

Pxley Extra: Glimpses of India


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The Beatles, An Ashram, and The Music

I remember hearing The Beatles on an A684 Murphy radio when my sisters tuned in to English music programs such as His and Hers from The Netherlands and Lunchtime Request Show from India.

It was in February 1968 that The Beatles arrived at the International Academy of Meditation in Rishikesh, India, on the invitation of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Transcendental Meditation was practiced in the Academy. The site is now colloquially known as Beatles Ashram and is referred to locally as Chaurasi Kutiya [pronounced chow-Rah-see koo-ti-yah; meaning “84 huts”]. The followers of Transcendental Meditation would perhaps prefer to call the site Maharishi-ji’s Ashram.

The global media followed The Fab Four to Rishikesh. Wouldn’t you too if you could tick off the following items as a reason to cover a story: The Beatles, Himalayas, Ganges, “Indian spiritualism and mysticism,” Transcendental Meditation, exotic location like Rishikesh?

Rishikesh

To visit Rishikesh in the state of Uttarakhand, I prefer the months of November to February. Dehradun is the nearest airport. You can take a 1.5 hour taxi ride from the airport to Rishikesh. Accommodations in Rishikesh range from budget to expensive; book in advance to reserve your dates. There are several things to do in Rishikesh—from yoga to meditation to spiritual ceremonies—but I will focus on Chaurasi Kutiya in this Pxley story.

Chaurasi Kutiya is 1.86 miles from Lakshman Jhula and .62 miles from Ram Jhula, the names of the two suspension bridges in Rishikesh. This area, within a government tiger reserve, can be a bit tricky to locate. If you don’t have a car at your disposal, an auto rickshaw will take you directly to Chaurasi Kutiya. The site is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. An entrance ticket is required. If you see a map on the side of the ticket booth, take a photo with your mobile device because it will come in handy.

Once inside the main entrance, you will make your way up a steep hill as you pass by a few meditation huts. Since there are no preset markers to tour the premises in any particular order, explore on your own. Be aware of your surroundings as some locations and buildings are somewhat desolate and dilapidated.

Meditation Caves

As you walk along the path from the entrance gate, you will see several dome-shaped structures. These were meditation caves. The first floor was sleeping quarters. Accessed by ladders, some of the caves have a raised platform on the second floor where one engaged in meditation. These structures had not been constructed when The Beatles were here. A sign indicates that the structures were “constructed from 1976-78 to accommodate Sanyasis and Brahmacharis for practicing their Sadhana,” i.e., they were constructed to accommodate hermits and scholars to practice their spiritual exercise.

Satsang Hall

The Satsang Hall was a lecture hall where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi shared his wisdom with his followers. The Hall is also referred to as "The Beatles Cathedral Gallery," which was an initiative by the street artist Pan Trinity Das who, with his wife, created a community arts project. A few walls and domes in Chaurasi Kutiya are covered in graffiti, pop art, poster-style portraits, lyrics to Beatles songs, and murals of the Beatles.

Gallery

A gallery at the ashram exhibits several photographs taken by Paul Saltzman. The photographs depict the time spent at the ashram by The Beatles and some of their friends [Donovan, Mia Farrow, Mike Love]. Saltzman’s candid photos gave the world a peek into the non-celebrity side of the Fab Four. Both the Beatles' much publicized stay at the ashram at the height of their fame, and their mission to learn meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had an effect on how Indian music, spirituality, and religion were looked upon in the West.

Panchkuti

Guests at the ashram stayed at guesthouses called Panchkuti. I believe guesthouse No. 9 was occupied by The Beatles and had modern amenities—electric heaters, running water, toilets, etc.

Chaurasi Kutia

As an academy of meditation, the Beatles Ashram has a building on its premises called Chaurasi Kutiya. Along the corridor of the building are chambers [total of 84] on each side for people to sit and meditate. A signboard in the building indicates that the chambers are based on 84 asanas. [yoga postures]. Individual chambers do not indicate if one chamber was meant for a specific asana.

Anand Bhawan

Anand Bhavan was the residential quarters for those enrolled in Transcendental Meditation courses. The stepped pyramid design of Anand Bhavan with large egg-shaped domes on its roof is unique. Perhaps the building was designed to reflect its location on a hill and embrace communal living within a sustaining environment. I was reminded of the Golden Domes at Maharishi International University in Iowa. The shape of the domes at these two sites are different but the commonalities are Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation. Nonetheless, I could not help but envision this site as a somewhat rustic imaginary university campus with students living and dining in communal buildings, attending lectures, participating in meditation at communal halls, and walking a few yards to the post office to collect and send mail to family and friends.

George Harrison

For me, the star of The Beatles was George Harrison. I understand this can be unfair to the rest of the Fab Four but we all have our preferences. As a songwriter, singer, and producer, George captured my attention and interest because he was passionate about his craft and humanitarian work. For example, he organized the first-ever benefit concert, The Concert For Bangladesh. George released the single, Bangla Desh, to raise money and awareness for the war-torn country and its refugees.

As an accomplished musician and song-writer in his 20s, George was introduced to Indian classical music and the works of Pandit Ravi Shankar by David Crosby of The Byrds. George played the sitar on the track Love You To from the Revolver album. He spent time studying with Pandit Ravi Shankar. The sitar, along with Indian classical music, influenced some of George’s compositions—Dehra Dun, Bangla Desh, The Inner Light , Within You Without You. As “The Quiet One,” George’s music led him to Eastern spirituality and religion as he began to study the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda.

Academic Introduction to The Beatles

My academic introduction to the group began with a course offered by Dr. Michael Cheney called The Beatles: Popular Music and Society. Dr Cheney created podcasts and multimedia content for this course, which broke new ground in higher education by integrating technology into pedagogy. Dr. Cheney received a national Excellence in Online Teaching award. His podcast about The Beatles was the second most downloaded podcast on iTunes U. I am thankful to Dr. Cheney for enthusiastically sharing his knowledge and expertise on The Beatles, and taking me on a journey unparalleled in coursework, rigor, popular music, and society. [Screengrab from Wayback Machine, dated December 18, 2014.]

Wah-Wah

As I started my car in the parking lot of my former workplace on my last working day, the following song played on CarPlay:

Wah-wah • You made me such a big star • Being there at the right time • Cheaper than a dime • Wah-wah, you've given me your • Wah-wah, wah-wah

For George Harrison, his song Wah-Wah suggested disenchantment, discontent, and his expression of independence from The Beatles.

For me, the song wasn’t about disenchantment or discontent. Instead, the song reflected my frame of mind that day—a thoughtfully planned departure, the opportunity to break free and steer in a new direction.

Dichotomy

Chaurasi Kutiya is now taken over by trees, shrubs, and vines; “overgrown” is the apt word in this case. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi stopped using the ashram in the 1970s. The land was reclaimed by the state government when the lease expired and is now a part of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve. Efforts by the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board are underway to revive the site’s legacy. The goal is to make the area a World Heritage site.

The Beatles left the ashram, each at different times, each disillusioned by different aspects of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or, food allergies in Ringo Starr’s case. In addition, there was a difference of approach to The Beatles’ stay at the ashram—Paul wanting to work on the next album while George wanted to use his time to meditate. The Beatles wrote over 30 songs during their stay at the ashram and several of those songs ended up in the White Album.

While The Beatles continued on their path to fame and fortune, the ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas lies in ruins. There is an allure in visiting such ruins. It is a fond reminder of what George Harrison wrote in his iconic post-Beatles track:

All things must pass
None of life’s strings can last
So I must be on my way
And face another day


Pxley Extras on The Beatles:

A) My favorite song by The Beatles is While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

I wrote ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ at my mother’s house in Warrington. I was thinking about the Chinese I Ching, the Book of Changes… The Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be, and that there’s no such thing as coincidence – every little item that’s going down has a purpose.

George Harrison
Anthology

B) My favorite song by George Harrison is My Sweet Lord, a composition from his post-Beatles career. He blends a Hebrew word with a Hindu Vedic prayer in the song. Perhaps it was George’s way to provoke and unify us, irrespective of our religion, while seeking spirituality. [Note: My preference for listening to My Sweet Lord is a simple setting—loud, for Volume.]

Dibrugarh: A Gateway Town

Situated on the banks of the Brahmaputra River and established in 1842, Dibrugarh [pronounced dib-roo-GOR] isn’t a primary travel destination but it can certainly be an excellent gateway to explore the northeastern corner of Assam and the neighboring states of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. Direct flights from Dibrugarh connects Agartala and Imphal, the state capitals of Tripura and Manipur.

Planes and trains connect Dibrugarh to and from several Indian cities. The closest cities are Guwahati and Kolkata [formerly Calcutta]. There are various options for hotels in Dibrugarh, but not all might meet the requirements of a high-end traveler. Homestays are another option, in addition to specialized accommodations in a tea estate.

Winter is cold and summer is hot and humid. The monsoon falls between June and September. My recommendation is to visit Dibrugarh between December and February. During these three months, nighttime temperatures range between 47-55 degrees Fahrenheit and daytime temperatures are pleasant, hovering around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Historically

Historically, Dibrugarh was an important administrative, strategic, and unique educational town. For example:

  • From an administrative perspective, Dibrugarh was made the headquarters of the district in 1840.
  • From a military standpoint, the British and the Americans made the region its strategic outpost.
  • From an educational perspective, the first school for girls in the region was established in 1885, followed by the first medical institution in Northeast India in 1901.

Even though Dibrugarh is a primary town for the region, urbanization brought its challenges—unplanned construction, worsening water quality, air and noise pollution, lack of waste management—and the struggle to maintain its unique past. Amidst these challenges lies opportunities. Efforts are being made by the current administration to take on those challenges faced by the town. Coupled with those efforts is this Pxley story encouraging you to explore the original township of Dibrugarh.

The Brahmaputra

If you fly into Dibrugarh, the Brahmaputra River comes into view as your aircraft begins its descent. Rice paddies and tea estates reveal a green landscape, depending on the month of your visit. The Brahmaputra River can average between 3 to 5 miles in width near Dibrugarh. Several agencies [Government of India, state government, USAID] have made attempts since 1934 to stabilize the river due to the continued erosion of its banks that impacts the lives of many. There are several stone and timber posts along with dikes that have been put in place to protect the town of Dibrugarh, a portion of which was submerged under the river due to erosion of the river banks.

Tea Estates

Dibrugarh is surrounded by rice paddies and tea estates. I highly recommend a visit to a tea estate. A few provide options to stay overnight, including a visit to a tea factory. If you are visiting Dibrugarh during the months of December through February, most tea estates are in maintenance mode. This means you won’t see a tea factory in operation. If you want to purchase tea to bring back to family and friends, I recommend the Tea Centre store. Note: The first flush [“flush” refers to tea leaves picked from individual growth periods] provides bolder tea but lacks a little in flavor. The second flush has more flavor. I prefer whole leaf teas but your preference might lean towards broken leaf, fannings, CTC, or dust grades tea.

Historic Buildings

A few historic buildings and sites in Dibrugarh should be on your must-see list. Some of these are: a) Assam Medical College [formerly Berry White Medical School; established 1900]; b) Bar Library [formerly McWilliam Hall]; and c) British Cemetery [built in 1862 and final resting ground of 103 British nationals]. Attempts have been made by local, state, and national governments and organizations to restore and improve historical buildings and sites. These investments can become a good source for knowledge-sharing and revenue generation, and much remains to be seen how such outcomes can be achieved.

Home Visit

If you have the opportunity to visit an Assamese home in a nearby village, do so. Traditionally, houses were constructed of mud-plastered bamboo for walls and a thatched roof. Given the prevailing geological and topographical settings, Assam-type architecture is meant to be earthquake-proof. Homes in villages had a loom and a dheki, a foot pounder for husking grains.

A homestay in Dibrugarh I can recommend is Bhaskar Home Stay. They won't have a loom or dheki at their modern premises but your stay will be secure and pleasant, and they might be able to recommend a home visit in a nearby village.

Ceremonies

Traditional Assamese ceremonies, unlike any seen in other parts of India, provide a glimpse into the particular culture of the region. There are two primary cultural and religious institutions that influence the fabric of Assamese culture: satras and nāmghar. Satras started in Assam during the 15th-16th centuries and propagated a form of Vaishnavism. Vaishnavism [a set of traditions that adheres to the worship of god Vishnu] emphasizes equality for all people instead of the Varna [caste] system that divides society into four hierarchical classes. A nāmghar is the central structure of a satra. In the Assamese language, nāmghar means nām [prayer] and ghar [house]. A nāmghar is also a community hall and an arts and crafts learning center. If your schedule permits, I recommend a visit to Majuli that I believe is one of the last bastions that preserve tribal and indigenous Assamese traditions in their original form. [Note: View a video excerpt from a traditional ceremony held in Dibrugarh.]

Cuisine

You can always fall back on a KFC or Domino’s Pizza but discovering the local foods of a region is a huge part of travel and exploration. With a bit of planning and foresight, you can learn to truly appreciate the authentic cuisine. Ask the personnel at your hotel’s front desk to recommend a place to eat. A unique opportunity would be to attend a traditional ceremony that offers maah prokhad—green gram [a green kind of bean], black chickpea, coconut, sugarcane, ginger, etc. A few unique items are: poita bhat—cooked rice kept overnight in cold water; cira—dried pounded rice; akhoi—parched husk-free rice; hurum—a type of puffed rice; sandoh guri—coarse powder of parched rice; khar—ashes of dried bark and root of plantain tree.

Textiles

It used to be common to find a loom in an Assamese house in a village. Three prominent Assamese items made on a loom are a gamusa, mekhela-sador, and a riha. A gamusa is rectangular in shape, woven on a traditional Assamese loom with white and red cotton thread. A mekhela-sador is a two-piece dress worn by women. The woven designs on a mekhela-sador generally depict traditional Assamese musical instruments, flowers, birds, etc. A riha is also worn along with a mekhela-sador on particular occasions. A shop I can recommend for a traditional mekhela-sador is Assam Fancy Silk House.

Traditional Household Items

These are miniature versions of traditional Assamese household items. The items are made out of bamboo. A jakoi is used to trap fish in the shallow ponds or rice paddies of Assam. Once a fish is caught with the help of a jakoi, it is stored in the khaloi. A kula is a winnowing fan used to separate hull [or husk] from rice after a milling process. A saloni is a sieve that can be used to separate the chaff from the kernel. A dola is a tray that can be used to store items or to sort through rice and remove any foreign objects like fragments of stones. The khorahi is a storage basket also used on occasion to wash rice.

Market

The market area in a town like Dibrugarh consists of commercial and residential spaces. Nonetheless, the general market area includes a vegetable and fruit market, fish and poultry market, and stores that sell everything from clothing to utensils to groceries. I always encourage a visit to a local market as it provides insights into the lives of the residents.

Side Trips

Dibrugarh can be an excellent gateway destination to its neighboring towns and states. Here are a few that can be a part of your visit to Dibrugarh:

a) Namphake: Assamese culture derives its roots from Tibeto-Burman, Austro-Asiatic, and Indo-Aryan ethno-cultural groups. A visit to the Namphake village illustrates how the Tai-Phake, an offshoot of the Tai race, found its place in Assam. The community worships Lord Buddha. In addition to a monastery, pagoda, and Ashoka pillar, a water tank has a statue of a meditating Buddha protected by a snake with its hood. The monastery is run by Buddhist monks and local villagers help in any manner possible.

b) Digboi: The first crude oil well in Asia was drilled in Digboi, located 50 miles east of Dibrugarh. As a child I remember hearing the fable of how Digboi got its name — “Dig boy, dig.” — which is how the British engineers encouraged laborers as they dug for crude oil. The town has several unique bungalows that catered to the Britain professionals working for the Assam Oil Company. The Digboi War Cemetery is the resting ground for the fallen Indian and British soldiers during World War II. Several of the marked graves date soldiers that died between 1939 and 1945. Fifteen miles from Digboi brings you to a small town called Ledo, which is the starting point of Ledo Road [aka Stilwell Road] that was built by American and British troops during World War II as a supply route to China through Burma.

c) Sivasagar: Located 50 miles southwest of Dibrugarh is the town of Sivasagar, the capital of the Ahom Kingdom from 1699 to 1788. Visit some of the monuments from the Ahom Kingdom in and around Sivasagar, including Charaideo that has a collection of maidams [tumuli or burial mounds] of the Ahom kings and royalty. A little known fact about Indian history is that the Ahoms defeated the Mughals in 18 major conflicts [between 1615 through 1682] and the Battle of Itakhuli in 1682 saw a decisive Ahom victory that resulted in the Mughal retreat.

Other opportunities to explore the region are a visit to the Kaziranga National Park, a 7-10 day river cruise on the Brahmaputra River, Hornbill Festival in the state of Nagaland, and a hidden gem—the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Pxley Extra: The following is a video excerpt from a traditional ceremony held in Dibrugarh, Assam.

A few interesting facts about Dibrugarh:

  • Dibrugarh was part of the Chutia kingdom until 1523.
  • The Dibrugarh Court was established in 1840.
  • Dibrugarh Govt. Boys’ Higher Secondary School was established in 1840.
  • Earliest known watercolour of the Brahmaputra River in Dibrugarh. The Burhampootra & Tibet mountains from Dibrooghur, Assam, by Edward Augustus Prinsep, dated c.1848.
  • Dibrugarh was declared a township in 1868.
  • The first school for girls, Government Girls Higher Secondary School, was established in 1885.
  • The Times of Assam, the first news weekly in the region, was published in 1895.
  • Assam Medical College [formerly Berry White Medical School] established in 1900 was the first medical institution in Northeast India.
  • During World War II, Dibrugarh was a military base and transit camp for evacuees from Burma. [Note: Read about “A Glimpse of Dinjan, Assam.”]

Majuli: Reflections of a Native Assamese

Majuli reminds me of the Assam [in northeast India] of my childhood—isolated and amiable. Few places in Assam possess such an allure of a not too distant past. Majuli [pronounced mah-joo-lee] could also be one of the last bastions at preserving tribal and indigenous Assamese traditions in its original form.

Surrounded by the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries, Majuli is the largest riverine island in the world. Life in Majuli appears idyllic but the hardships the inhabitants face due to the monsoon floods and silt deposits seem demanding.

Majuli is home to 22 satras [monasteries] while some others have moved off the island due to soil erosion. Satras started in Assam during the 15th-16th century and propagate a form of Vaishnavism [a set of traditions that adheres to the worship of god Vishnu] that emphasizes equality for all people instead of the Varna [caste] system that divides society into four hierarchical classes.

Getting There

From any major city in India, fly into Jorhat or Dibrugarh, Assam, and on the following day, get an early morning start en route to Mājuli. Both Jorhat and Dibrugarh have ample facilities for lodging but don’t expect four-star rated accommodations.

Be careful driving in the early morning fog. Winter temperatures will range from low to mid-40℉ up to low-60℉. There is no central heating in homes and hotels; layer up for the day. I recommend at least two days to explore Mājuli. However, if you only have a day to spare, a reliable tour guide can help you to plan and maximize your visit.

River Crossing

Make sure you are at the correct ghat [usually a flight of steps to a river but in this instance, the dock to catch your ferry] to catch your ferry to Mājuli. Be on time, buy your tickets on the ferry, get a seat, and be prepared for late departures. You cross the river in what is referred to as either the iron or wooden ferry. The former is larger and the latter seems precarious, to say the least. While sitting inside the wooden ferry, the water level was a few inches below the window and seemed higher than the floor of the ferry. Nonetheless, this is the only and a reliable mode of transportation to reach Mājuli.

Driving on the Brahmaputra

The best months to visit Mājuli are November through April [December-January are the coolest periods]. The Brahmaputra River is mostly dry during these months. After your ferry ride, you have to drive on the dry riverbed to reach Mājuli. The riverbed is temporarily laid with dry stubbles of rice grass, which help to keep a vehicle’s tires from getting stuck in the sand. Stay on track! When the Brahmaputra is flowing at full capacity, your ferry will dock along the banks of the island.

Mājuli

Upon reaching Mājuli, it felt as though I was transferred to an idyllic tribal and Assamese village from the recent past. [Note: I recommend a visit to the Mishing tribal villages.] The roads in Mājuli are narrow, traffic is light, and pollution is minimal. The Mishing and Deori tribespeople of Mājuli build their homes on bamboo stilts being located near the riverine tracts or wetlands.

Primarily an agricultural community, rice is the main crop of Mājuli and several varieties are grown on the island. Kumol saul [tender rice, in Assamese] is a unique rice that is grown in Mājuli and can be eaten without cooking. The rice is immersed in warm water for a few minutes and eaten with plain yogurt and jaggery.

Migratory Birds

Mājuli is a biodiversity hotspot and its fertile floodplains and wetlands provide an ideal habitat for a wide range of migratory birds. Being on the Central Asia/Indian Flyway, over 200 varieties of migratory birds visit Mājuli during the winter months. Many make Mājuli their winter home while others make their way to the sea.

The Whistling Duck arrive from Siberia in September-October and throng the large ponds until March-April. The Pallas’s fish-eagle comes to breed in Mājuli. During the summer months, migratory species like the hawk-cuckoo make Mājuli their home.

The Satra

Satras in Mājuli are religious and cultural centers. They communicate cultural and religious philosophies of Sankardav [1449–1568] and Madhavdav [1489–1596] who were Assamese Vaishnavite scholars and social-reformers. Monotheism is practiced in the satras while animal sacrifice and idolatry are rejected. Additionally, as centers of art and culture, traditional forms of music, dance, and mask-making take centerstage at the satras.

Satras are headed by a satradhikar. An integral aspect of a satra is a nāmghar [prayer house], a congregation hall where the name of Lord Govinda is recited by the Vaishnavites [a disciple of Vaishnavism]. Some satras provide basic accommodation and meals, which gives you an opportunity to watch life up close in a satra. [Note: No footwear is allowed at the satras.]

Nāmghar

A nāmghar is associated with religious and cultural life of the indigenous Assamese people. A nāmghar is also the central structure of a satra. In the Assamese language, nāmghar translates to nām [prayer] and ghar [house]. A nāmghar is also a community hall and a center of training for arts and crafts.

My father, along with contributions from a few other members of the community, built a nāmghar opposite my childhood, and his current, home. During the evenings, I remember listening to the music from tals and khols as a group [including my father] practiced gayan-bayan in the nāmghar. From an architectural perspective, nāmghars are usually rectangular in shape with a raised roof on two parallel rows of pillars that run along the length of the nāmghar and aligned along the east-west axis.

Garuda

At one of the nāmghars within a satra, a giant wooden Garuda statue protects the premises. Garuda represents birth and heaven and is the enemy of snakes, a symbol of death and underworld. In Hinduism, Garuda, an eagle-like creature, was the vehicle of god Vishnu. In Buddhism, Garuda is one of the Astasena [eight nonhuman super beings]. Garuda is the national emblem of Thailand and Indonesia and is referred to as Phra Khrut Pha and Garuda Pancasila respectively. In Burma, garudas are called ga-lon, the Japanese call it Karura, and in Mongolia it is the Khangard.

Masks

One of the satras in Mājuli is known for it masks. The satra traces its mask-making tradition to the 17th century. These masks have a base layer made of bamboo, which gives it a structure for the face. Upon the bamboo frame sits layered strips of cloth dipped in soil collected from the banks of the Brahmaputra River. A blend of cow dung and clay is applied to give a mask its necessary shape and contours. Beards and mustaches for the masks are made from jute. Vegetables dyes are used for color. The masks come in three sizes and are used for bhaona, a traditional Assamese theatre form. An interesting aspect of these masks is that they have been redesigned to move with the actor’s jaws, allowing for greater control during a bhaona.

Gayan-Bayan

A gayan-bayan is a devotional performance by the Vaishnavite Assamese. A gayan is the singer and bayan is a musician. The singers play tal, a medium-sized cymbal made of bell metal and used for rhythm or time-measure. The musicians play a khol, a wooden drum that is hung horizontally from their shoulders. The right side of the khol produces a high pitch whereas the left side produces a deep bass sound. The singers stand behind the drummers, swinging their bodies; the drummers play their instruments and dance.

Pxley Extra: The following video is an excerpt of a gayan-bayan performance by the bhakats [monks] of a satra.

Acknowledgements: Video and photo for “Getting There” contributed by BJG. Photo for “Migratory Birds” contributed by BJB.

Kerala: A State of Serenity

A great way to explore Kerala is to visit a mountain town, take a backwater cruise, and relax at the beach.

Munnar, a mountain town in Kerala, is a destination for those that wish to unwind within a small-town setting. The primary attractions of Munnar are its forested mountains dotted with tea estates, hiking, a bird sanctuary and national park.

Lakes, canals, and lagoons form more than 600 miles of the backwaters of Kerala, India. One way to experience the backwaters is by ferry services. The other is to rent a houseboat [kettuvallam] for a day or an overnight trip.

Kerala has over 370 miles of shoreline. While some of the beaches can be crowded, others are relatively quiet. It’s not a bad idea to travel during the monsoon months, June through August, when there are fewer tourists and off-season discounts at beach resorts are common.

Shades of Green

Let’s begin with Munnar. As you drive and climb higher up the Western Ghats mountain range, the air turns crisp and the vistas open up in front of you. The forests in the mountains of Munnar are locally known as Sholas ["forests," in Tamil].

Your Cup of Tea

Munnar is the largest tea-growing region of southern India. The other primary Indian tea growing regions are Assam and Darjeeling in West Bengal. Tea from Munnar and Darjeeling have a slight floral flavor. Tea from Assam is darker when brewed and has a robust flavor.

Munnar Market

Stop by the Munnar Market. The paths are narrow and can get crowded depending on the time of day. Keep your bearings so that you can retrace your steps. In addition to vegetable, fruit, meat, etc., the Munnar Market has some stands that sell dried fish.

Eravikulam National Park

The Eravikulam National Park is known for Nilgiri tahr [ibex] and is home to the Lakkam Waterfalls. The view is idyllic with great vistas and the Lakkam Waterfalls. Approximately 700-800 Nilgiri tahr inhabit the park. There are hiking trails in the park.

Backwater Cruise

En route to Alappuzha [or Alleppey]: One way to experience the backwaters of Kerala is by ferry. Another way is by houseboats. Houseboats were traditionally used to transport harvested rice from fertile fields alongside the backwaters. The houseboats now seem like floating private cottages that have a small sit-out, dining area, and air-conditioned cabins with attached western-style toilets.

Life in the Backwaters

People live alongside the narrow canals on homes that are usually one room long and 1-3 rooms wide. Municipal drinking water is piped into the households and so is electricity. Canal water is used for washing dishes, bathing, washing clothes, etc.

A Taste of Kerala

Mostly Kerala food was cooked and served on board, though there were some options to satisfy most palettes. Fresh fruit juice is served and tea or coffee are always an option. For dinner, you can shop for fish or shrimp along the canals.

From the Backaters to a Beach

Kerala provides a traveler with abundant opportunities to explore a wide variety of experiences — from the backwaters to the beaches to the mountains. There are several beach resorts in Kerala. Some among them have a more rustic feel since the impact they have on the surrounding community has been taken into consideration.

Tranquil

If you’re thinking of beach huts with drinks and music, speed boats, jet skis, etc., you can be at a touristy beach destination in Kerala. Other resorts provide a tranquil environment, an easy way to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Fishing Village

A beach resort can be located adjacent to a fishing village, which gives you the chance to see fishermen casting their nets in the late afternoon or returning from fishing trips in the morning. Some resorts provide a guided tour of a nearby village.

Afternoon Stroll

There are several activities at a resort and some don’t involve water slides or rave parties. Instead, the activities pertain to yoga, sustainable cooking, a visit to the butterfly garden, etc. You can also get an Ayurvedic massage or decide that a stroll on the beach is all you need. There are no vendors selling you trinkets or coconut water. Just listen to the waves and enjoy the company of a loved one, a friend, or your own self.

Munnar: To Unwind and Relax

At an elevation of 5,026 feet above sea level, Munnar is a mountain town on the Western Ghats of India. Located in the southern state of Kerala, Munnar is a destination for those that wish to unwind within a small-town setting.

The primary attractions of Munnar are its forested mountains dotted with tea estates, hiking, a bird sanctuary and national park. If you love to trek, bring your trekking poles or hiking staff.

It’s a relaxing three-hour drive to Munnar from the nearest airport, Kochi. Temperatures will vary between Kochi, a port city, and Munnar, a mountain town. Check for these changes before you embark upon your trip. There are several places to stay in Munnar, both within the town and its outskirts. High-end accommodations costs between $200-$500 per night. I recommend that you confirm your lodging ahead of time. This will also allow you to book a car through the hotel or resort and have it waiting for you when you arrive at the airport.

Shades of Green

As you drive and climb higher up the Western Ghats mountain range, the air turns crisp and the vistas open up in front of you. The forests in the mountains of Munnar are locally known as Sholas ["forests," in Tamil]. Since Pantone and Web Safe Colors are an aspect of my work, I couldn’t help but think in terms of PMS and Hex numbers for the shades of green before my eyes. This soon changes when I inadvertently switch off from work mode, which is especially difficult for me during the first few days of a vacation.

Your Cup of Tea

Munnar is the largest tea-growing region of southern India. The other primary tea growing regions of India are Assam and Darjeeling in West Bengal. Tea from Munnar and Darjeeling have a slight floral flavor. Tea from Assam is darker when brewed and has a robust flavor. The difference could well be the strength of your cup of tea.

While driving by a tea estate in Munnar, I recommend getting out of your car to get up close to a tea shrub. Look for a leaf bud and two leaves that surround it. These young sprouts produce the best tea. Tea shrubs can grow 20-30 feet high and pruning keeps the shrubs at a manageable height of 3-4 feet.

Visiting a Tea Factory

A visit to a tea factory in Munnar presents a few options. I took my friends to one that provides an inside glimpse of the tea production process. There is an entrance fee and it includes a guided tour. Depending on the docent for your tour, it might be difficult to understand what is being said in English because of the Malayalam [native language of Kerala] intonation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. We received a detailed orientation of the entire tea production process inside the factory. Photography was not permitted. There is a shop on-site where you can buy tea from the estate.

Munnar Market

Stop by the Munnar Market. The paths are narrow and can get crowded depending on the time of the day. Keep your bearings so that you can retrace your steps.

When I travel, I always stop by a local market—be it in Palermo or Barcelona or Bangalore. These markets provide an insight into the local culture. The Munnar Market has a few shops that sell dried fish. While dried fish may not seem appetizing to many because of its smell or taste, unakka meen ["dried fish"] curry is certainly on my menu.

CSI Church

Built in 1910, the CSI Church was constructed in European Gothic style in granite with stained glass windows. At the cemetery behind the church, you will see marked graves of British tea planters that used to work in Munnar. During the Munnar Floods of 1924, many sought refuge at this church on top of a hill. An interesting feature of this church is that shoes and sandals are not allowed inside.

Eravikulam National Park

A 30-minute drive from the town of Munnar will take you to Eravikulam National Park. The park is known for Nilgiri tahr [Nilgiri ibex] and is home to the Lakkam Waterfalls. You have to buy tickets and take a bus to the main entrance of the park. The view is idyllic with great vistas and the Lakkam Waterfalls. Once you arrive at the main entrance, you have to walk the road to hike up the hill. Although 700-800 Nilgiri tahr inhabit the park, you will need to climb up high to see them graze. There are hiking trails in the park. South India's highest peak, Anamudi [8841 feet], is located within the park.

A Trek Through Cardamom Estates

Pepper, cardamom, and cloves are the primary spices of Kerala. Portuguese travelers stopped in Kerala on their way to China along the spice route in ancient times. When Vasco da Gama set foot on the shores of Kerala and was met by Tunisian traders who were already there, the ancient Greeks and Romans had already been trading spices in India. The French, Dutch, and British were next to set foot in Kerala.

While in Munnar, visit a government-approved store to purchase spices. I went on a trek inside a cardamom estate. Since the paths are not cleared, I grade them as uneven and rough-going. This makes it even more beautiful because you will be one of the few to make this trek.

Coffee Estates

The first coffee plantation in Munnar was established in 1897. Both Arabica and Robusta coffee are grown in Kerala. A filtered brew is locally known as kaapi. In the estates of Kerala, coffee plants are usually grown under under tall, shady trees.

Several years ago, I visited a friend and stayed in his ancestral coffee estate. One night we went on a wild boar hunt, my first hunt of any sort. No worries, we didn’t kill any animals. Instead, my calves were decorated with leaches feasting on my blood. One last note to self — While on a hunting trip on foot at night, don’t fall behind from your group to admire the stars.

Staying at an Estate

There are several hotels and resorts in Munnar. In addition, there are a few estates that host a limited number of visitors. These places get booked quickly during the tourist season, which is any season in India other than the monsoon season. The stay at these estates can be expensive in comparison to mid-range hotels, but you have the opportunity to meet the owners who have lived there for generations, you will have freshly prepared meals, and you get an insider’s view of Munnar from a local's perspective.

Down the Path

I couldn’t help but think of John Lennon’s “Grow Old Along With Me” as I saw my friends walk down the path to their bungalow, hand in hand.

My trip to Munnar with friends was to unwind and relax. For those visiting from outside of India, a visit to Munnar is also a great way to see and compare life at a major city and small mountain town.

As Munnar continues to grow, tourists will seek different forms of entertainment. On a different level, others will begin to ponder the environmental and social impacts of tourism. New construction is apparent on the mountains of Munnar, and, if unplanned, this development can have a negative impact on the ecosystem. I have seen such a thing in other mountain towns of India.

The time is ripe for Munnar to grow tourism consciously while finding ways to economically and socially sustain the local population.

Bengaluru Beckons: Plan Your Visit

Once a Pensioner’s Paradise, the city of Bengaluru [also referred to as Bangalore] in the southern Indian state of Karnataka has undergone several changes in the past two decades. Vehicular traffic has increased tremendously and the cityscape appears crowded with residential and commercial high-rises.

It is not unusual to hear natives of the city reminisce about “old Bangalore” and I echo their sentiment. However, as Heraclitus said, “The only thing that is constant is change.”

Bengaluru is easily accessed by road, air, and train. There is a wide range of hotels and for your daily commute, you can use on-call taxis or car and driver rentals. Depending on where you are staying, you can always rely on the metro rail.

English is widely spoken. Learning a few words in Kannada, native language of Karnataka, is a good measure for any traveler. Recent migrants to the city might not understand chill maadi or swalpa adjust maadi but a few words in the native language is a good measure for any traveler. For example, Namaskara [Hello], Hegiddera? [How are you?], Oota ayta? [Had food?]. Do remember that during a conversation with a South Indian, a shake of the head from left to right or vice-versa doesn’t necessarily imply disagreement.

There are many ways to discover Bengaluru. What follows is my recommendation and I hope you enjoy maadi.

Traffic

Don't bemoan the fact that you will have to put up with traffic congestion in Bangaluru. Instead, plan extra time to get to one part of the city to another and keep your eyes on the road instead of a screen. You are bound to see some interesting sights that you might not see anywhere else.

Rest and Relaxation

Begin your stay in Bengaluru with some R&R. Try a bit of meditation and get a traditional Ayurvedic massage. Take it slow on your first day; you will need all your energy for the days ahead as the city unfolds itself to you.

Food and Beverage

You will have a wide range of options for food—Chinese, Indian, Italian, Mexican, etc. I recommend that you try a few traditional South Indian meals. The meals are served on a plantain leaf and you will have vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. Ask for rasam [a digestive soup] with your meal. As for a beverage, do try a fresh lime soda and South Indian coffee [pictured above]. Skip the venti or grande macchiato.

Arts and Crafts

Explore the state-run emporiums to get a feel for the arts and crafts of the region. The prices at these stores are fixed [meaning, there is no bargaining unlike at some of the other stores] and the products are genuine. The staff at these state-run emporiums are helpful. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Silk

Visit a reliable silk store and indulge in the luxury of exquisite silk selections for sarees, cloth, drapery, etc. Consult a reliable guidebook or inquire at the hotel front desk. Be prepared to spend some time at the store. Ask questions; for example: What’s the difference between Bangaluru Silk and Mysore Silk?

Markets

There are several markets in Bengaluru that sell everything from flowers to fishes. A visit to one of these markets should be in your itinerary. Some of these markets are held along the roadside. For a few minutes forget you’re a foreign visitor before you visit any of these markets and become a part of the experience.

Temple Architecture

The Kote Venkataramana Temple, located near Bengaluru Fort, was built in 1689. Temples in South India have gopurams [monumental towers] as their entrances, which is unique to Dravidian style of architecture. You may see devotees entering a temple by bowing at the entrance, a sign of touching the feet of the deity, as she/he proceeds towards the sanctum within concentric walls. Temples in India require you to leave your footwear at the entrance.

Houses of Worship

Amongst the several houses of worship in Bengaluru, St Mark’s Cathedral opened its doors in 1812. This garrison church was initially accessible only to officers of the British Army. Among other things, the colors of the 77th Moplah Rifles are displayed inside the church. The restored pipe organ is a major draw. Although modeled on the lines of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, St Mark’s Cathedral has a mix of architectural styles that are the results of a reconstruction of the cathedral after a fire in 1923 and building collapse in 1924.

Day Trip from Bengaluru

Having said at the outset of this story that this is my perspective on a visit to Bengaluru, similarly, my recommendation for a day trip from Bengaluru is either Somnathpur or Talakadu [pictured above is Vaidyeshwara Temple, Talakadu]. If you have two days to spare, I recommend Hampi, where the glory and splendor of the Vijayanagara [1336–1646] is evident in the ruins. If you prefer a more laid-back approach to end your trip, I recommend Coorg.

On A Personal Note

I started my 11th grade at a Jesuit high school in Bengaluru. That was my dorm room—on the top floor with white blinds on the window at the right. I formed many wonderful friendships that have lasted over the years. Many lessons were learned outside the classroom, which makes my life’s journey more exciting. One of my favorite memories pertains to singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” If the dinner bell happened to ring midway through the song, we would dash off to the cafeteria*. Sorry, John Denver; RIP.

[P.S. Can I carry a tune? Of course not but that didn’t stop me from singing “Mujhe Chahe Na Chahe" in front an audience simply because it was a duet with a girl. This was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life but hey, I was young and naïve.]

A Backwaters Cruise in Kerala

Lakes, canals, and lagoons form more than 600 miles of the backwaters of Kerala, India.

One way to experience the backwaters is by ferry services. The other is to rent a houseboat [kettuvallam] for a day or an overnight trip. A private two-cabin houseboat with an excellent crew can make your journey memorable.

Time spent in the backwaters can stimulate contemplation. In a private houseboat, you are the occasion. I had the good fortune of revisiting the backwaters with a couple of dear friends. As we glided gently along the lake and canals, the following words of Lord Buddha echoed in my mind:

“Better than a hundred years
of not perceiving how things arise and pass away,
is living one day if a person
does perceive how things arise and pass away.”

Kettuvallam (Kerala houseboat)

Don't be deceived by the looks. The houseboats were traditionally used to transport harvested rice from fertile fields alongside the backwaters. The houseboats now seem like floating private cottages that have a small sit-out, dining area, and air-conditioned cabins with attached western-style toilets. A crew of three—captain, engineer, and cook—cater to your needs.

Interior

The interior of our houseboat was clean, spacious, and comfortable. The beds seemed larger than standard queen-sized beds with crisp white cotton sheets and a fluffy comforter. A floor fan is standard and the bedrooms have a quiet air-conditioning system that is available overnight. The houseboat is equipped with flotation devices, fire extinguishers, etc.

Vembanad Lake

Separated from the Arabian Sea by a narrow barrier island, Vembanad Lake is the largest wetland system in India and one of its largest lakes. The lake is under a wetland conservation program that takes a "multi-stakeholder interdisciplinary approach designed and implemented to bring democratic principles into wetland conservation."

Our overnight trip began on the shores of this lake and the houseboat proceeded at a slow speed for smooth travel.

Livelihood

Major livelihood activities of the people living on the shores of Lake Vembanad include agriculture, fishing, coir retting [fiber extracted mechanically from coconut husks after a biodegradation process called retting], etc. Chinese fishing nets [possibly introduced by Chinese explorer Zheng He] can be seen along the shorelines. Fishermen on small boats cast their nets in the morning and it is not unusual to see women fishing from a coracle [bowl-shaped boat with a frame of woven grasses or reeds covered with hides].

View of a paddy field

Along our journey, we saw paddy fields that ran alongside the canals, as well as banana plantations. Rice is grown on low-lying ground that is irrigated with fresh water from canals and waterways connected to the Vembanad Lake. Rice paddies help to conserve ground water, provide natural drainage paths for flood waters, and are crucial for the preservation of the state's wide variety of flora and fauna.

Life along a narrow canal

People live alongside the narrow canals on homes that are usually one room long and 1-3 rooms wide. Drinking water is piped into the households and so is electricity. Canal water is used for washing dishes, bathing, washing clothes, etc.

A flavor of Kerala

Mostly Kerala food was cooked and served on board, though there were some options to satisfy most palettes. Fresh fruit juice is served and tea or coffee are always an option. For dinner, you can shop for fish or shrimp along the canals.

Rice as a staple and more

Rice is the staple food for the people of Kerala, as in many other parts of India. Kerala's Matta rice has a unique taste and is usually parboiled to ensure retention of its nutritional value.

A few years ago, indigenous varieties of paddy were lost to a few high-yielding varieties developed in labs. However, efforts led by a few farmers [along with a few scientists] who refused to forgo their heritage seeds as well as national campaigns such as the "Save our Rice Campaign" have helped preserve and propagate more than 1,000 varieties in fields across India.

Environmental concerns

A proliferation of unregulated motorized houseboats in the backwaters of Kerala has raised environmental concerns. A good practice is to use certified houseboats.

As an invasive species, Eichhornia crassipes [commonly known as water hyacinth] is having an unforeseen impact on the backwaters. However, efforts led by a local college professor have led to using the stem of Eichhornia crassipes as a material for pulp, a bed for mushroom cultivation, etc.

As the day winds down

We left the shores of Lake Vembanad around noon, crossed the lake, glided through canals, enjoyed a delicious lunch, and took a nap on deck. By evening, our Captain docked the houseboat and we were served tea with traditional Kerala snacks. Dinner was a traditional meal with a wide variety of delicious eats.

Note: If your idea of an evening is to be at a vibrant locale with tourists and restaurants, an overnight houseboat trip is definitely not for you.

Backwaters to beach to mountains

Kerala provides a traveler with abundant opportunities to explore a wide variety of experiences — from the backwaters to the beaches to the mountains.

Kerala has been a favorite destination of mine. I hope you will have an opportunity to experience the state of Kerala like I have — the people, the food, and the experiences will captivate you; I know!

Leh and Ladakh: Experience It

There are destinations you visit and destinations you experience. Leh and Ladakh is an experience of a lifetime.

The journey will captivate you at every turn.

The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost

"And be one traveler, long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could."

The Shadow of the Valley, Matt Hart

"I say this as much for my own ear as any. I want to hear / Life as it motors all along."

Words of Truth, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso The Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet

"Buddha's full teachings dispel the pain of worldly / existence and self-oriented peace; / May they flourish, spreading prosperity and happiness through-out this spacious world."

Words of Truth, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso The Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet

"Please grant soon the good fortune to enjoy / The happy celebration of spiritual with temporal rule."

Journey Home, Rabindranath Tagore

"The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, / and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end."

Journey Of The Magi, T. S. Eliot

"And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, / Lying down in the melting snow."

The Triumph of Life, P. B. Shelley

"As in that trance of wondrous thought I lay / This was the tenour of my waking dream."

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, William Wordsworth

"I gazed—and gazed—but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought"

Let Me Not Forget, Rabindranath Tagore

"When I sit by the roadside, tired and panting, / when I spread my bed low in the dust, / let me ever feel that the long journey is still before me / ---let me not forget a moment"

A Lover's Complaint, William Shakespeare

"What's sweet to do, to do will aptly find: / Each eye that saw him did enchant the mind, / For on his visage was in little drawn / What largeness thinks in Paradise was sawn."

This Consciousness That Is Aware, Emily Dickinson

"Adventure most unto itself / The Soul condemned to be -- / Attended by a single / Hound its own identity."

Hampi: Lest We Forget

The city of Vijayanagara, known by its modern name, Hampi, is a small town in the Indian state of Karnataka. The city of Vijayanagara was founded around the year 1336.

Hampi is located on the banks of River Tungabhadra. When I first visited Hampi, the ruins were rarely visited and my first impressions were the sights of behemoth red and brown granite stones. They left me with a vivid and lasting impression of this once glorious city that was destroyed by invaders in 1565.

Today, Hampi is a destination for tourists and travelers. The glory and splendor of the Vijayanagara Empire is evident in the ruins.

Entrance Tower of Vitthala Temple

Built in the 15th Century, the Vitthala Temple is dedicated to Lord Vitthala, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. An outstanding example of Dravidian style of architecture, the Vitthala Temple exhibits features that are characteristic of South Indian temple architecture. Dravidian architecture, which flourished under the Vijayanagara Empire, is characterized by large dimensions, cloistered enclosures, and lofty towers over entrances that are encased by decorated pillars.

Stone Chariot

The Stone Chariot, a shrine for Garuda, was built in the 16th century. Garuda, a mythical bird-like creature, is the mount of Lord Vishnu. The chariot might seem like a monolithic structure carved out of a giant stone. Instead, the structure was built using several granite blocks and the joints are hidden by exquisite carvings. Elephants appear to be pulling the chariot but they do not belong to the original structure. Tails and hind legs of the original horse structures can be seen behind the elephants.

Ranga Mantapa

Situated in the Vittala Temple complex, the Ranga Mantapa is renowned for its musical pillars. Visitors are restricted from tapping on the pillars due to damage that has resulted from tapping over the years. The emission of musical notes from stone pillars has been a mystery for centuries. Two pillars were cut to see if they were hollow on the inside and those cut marks are still visible. The pillars are carved out of single pieces of resonant stone.

Musical Pillars

Each main pillar that supports the ceiling of Ranga Mantapa is surrounded by smaller musical pillars. You can see the wear that has occurred on the smaller musical pillars. Tapping on different pillars emit the musical notes 'DO RE MI' and so on. There are a total of 56 musical pillars.

Pushkaranis – Sacred Water Tanks

The water tanks with large stone steps allowed people to get to the water easily. The water tanks are connected to an extensive network of stone aqueducts and canals. Around 1339, a huge dam was built in the Tungabhadra river as well as an aqueduct several miles long from the river into the city, cut out of the solid rock base of the hills.

The Queen’s Bath

The Queen’s Bath is an elaborate structure with a simple exterior and an ornate interior. The bath is a rectangular pool, surrounded by arched corridors with pillars, and ornate balconies with windows. Only women of the royal family were allowed to use the bath.

Haraza Rama Temple

Hazara Rama translates to "a thousand Rama" and refers to a host of relics depicting the deity of the temple, Lord Rama. Inside you will see the famous relics and panels depicting the story of the epic Ramayana. The outer walls portray processions of elephants, horses, soldiers, etc., who are taking part in the Dasara festival.

Lotus Mahal

The Lotus Mahal [Palace] is situated among the ruins of Hampi. A wider view of this structure manifests the shape of a lotus bud. The archways are designed to resemble petals of a lotus. Viewed from the inside, the arches are covered with intricate carvings. An interesting feature about the Lotus Mahal is that it was air-cooled with a water pipeline that runs above and between the arches and on the sides of the roof.

Elephant Stable

This stable for State elephants has a row of eleven domed chambers, large enough to accommodate two elephants at a time. The domes represent different styles of architecture and there are remnants of stucco and plaster ornamentation on both the inside and outside the stable.

Lakshmi Narasimha Statue

The most imposing sculpture of Hampi, the Lakshmi Narasimha statue, is also its largest monolith statue. Narasimha is the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu and appeared on Earth in the form of half human [nara] and half lion [simha]. The sculpture portrays Narasimha sitting on the coils of Adishesha, the sacred guardian snake of Lord Vishnu, which rises behind him with its seven hoods that acts as a canopy.

Chandikesvara Temple

The Chandikesvara temple has a hall situated at the front of the structure and it's most interesting aspect is the richly carved pillars. A brilliant piece of architecture in itself, these pillars have been crafted out of stones and depict several themes of the Hindu mythology.

Hampi

This ornate structure in Hampi has weathered 500 years of natural and man-made destruction. Although damaged to a large extent, the structure reflects the beauty and grandeur that was once attached to it. Under the initiative of the Archaeological Survey of India, the Archaeological Museum at Kamalapura was established to undertake the responsibility of preserving the ruins of Hampi.